Sunday, May 29, 2016

The real purpose of dialogue and mediation

Keynote address by Chris Spies to the National Conference on Peace and Justice through Mediation
Annapurna Hotel, Kathmandu
27 May 2016

Ladies and gentleman (all protocols observed),

It is a great honour to share a few thoughts about Peace and Justice through Mediation. I do so in a spirit of admiration for what Nepal has achieved over the last decade and still continues to achieve. I am also grateful for the invitation by The Asia Foundation (TAF) to share a few thoughts. TAF  has consistently worked with its local partner organisations to make mediation part of the DNA of this country.

TAF’s dedicated focus on the empowerment of local stakeholders to prevent, manage and resolve conflict at village, regional and national levels is an excellent example of how external and internal partners should work together. TAF understands. correctly, the importance of local peace initiatives in building a peaceful and cohesive Nepal. At a time when international actors seem to be less willing to support dialogue and mediation, TAF has increased its activities to help build a Community Mediation Society, Regional Dialogue Forums and teams of local mediators in many districts.

Let me also congratulate the government of Nepal for having embraced and supported the need for a structure and institutions for mediation.

In this keynote address I hope to challenge us to widen the scope of our understanding of what the purpose of melmilab / mediation and sambaad / dialogue is. 

The core argument that I am putting forward is that the real purpose of dialogue and mediation is to rehumanise and heal societies so that they are stronger together to build a fair, just, peaceful and cohesive society.

But first and foremost, let us reflect on the concept of melmilab. (I will explore the meaning of sambaad  later in this address.)

The UN Guidelines for Effective Mediation describe melmilab as “a process whereby a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to develop mutually acceptable agreements.”

Each word in this working definition is loaded. It is a good definition, especially in the sense that it places the responsibility of the resolution of conflict in the hands of the affected stakeholders.  The principle of local ownership is key to mediation. It further underscores the fact that mediation is about the prevention of destructive and violent conflict. While it is true that mediation normally produces agreements, we should not make the mistake to think that the only purpose of mediation is to produce an agreement—a signed piece of paper. 

In South Africa there was no single comprehensive peace agreement, but a series of messy and turbulent small footsteps away from a traumatic and dehumanising apartheid past towards a just and peaceful society. The ultimate seal of a peaceful transition was the adoption of our Constitution two years after the first democratic elections.

We completed the transition. A new system replaced the monstrous apartheid system. But our transition did not heal the wounds. It also did not offer justice and redress to the victims of apartheid. Geoff Budlender uses the following metaphor: “It often seems to me that apartheid was like a building: the apartheid laws created a scaffolding for the building when it was being erected – but when the scaffolding was removed after 1994 through the repeal of the apartheid laws, of course the building did not fall down.”

Today, 22 years after the so-called “South African miracle”, the country is at a boiling point. The past is still very much with us. The unfinished business of our transition has come back to haunt us. We have not paid enough attention to the transformation of the system, our institutions and the redress of injustices of the past. South Africa is the second most unequal society in the world. The young people are angry because of the lack of transformation in the country. They are facing an uncertain future in a country that officially has a 27% unemployment rate and where the majority of the poor is black and in many respects still disadvantaged and whites continue to benefit from privilege. Racism is sadly growing like a cancer that destroys us from inside.

The problem with destructive conflict, such as South Africa’s apartheid system, or a violent revolution, or a civil war, is that it wounds, fragments, humiliates and dehumanises people. Martha Cabrera talks about “multiply wounded societies” and cites research that millions of dollars are wasted on empowerment programmes because people are in need of healing.  They cannot move on with their lives because of the unresolved past.

In South Africa  white people inflicted these wounds on black people because we saw them as “less than” us. We humiliated them, destroyed their dignity and treated them as inferior people. We physically and geographically separated ourselves from “the other”, making sure, of course that we, the whites, owned the land and economy. We even manipulated theology and the education system to justify the creation of a brutal system of oppression.

We believed our own myths and stereotypes and acted on the basis of fear for “the other”. We institutionalised violent oppression through acts of parliament and the used the full force of the state apparatus to execute unjust policies.

Afrikaans—my language—became the tool to oppress black people and we forced them to learn Afrikaans in schools. That is why the Soweto uprisings started in 1976.

The way we spoke about black people was violent. We called them “kaffirs” and “hotnots”, compared them to monkeys and made derogatory jokes about them. I personally heard white people say to me:
“The only good black man is a dead black man.”

In our workshop earlier this week Nepalis told stories of Dalits and lower caste people who were denied water because of their caste. Of course the victims felt humiliated and dehumanised. Their only power they had was to fight back with matches and lighters to burn down the crops of higher caste farmers.

Nepal has anti-discrimination laws in place, but these laws are fighting an uphill battle against centuries of norms and values in some Nepali societies.

Our capacity to inflict pain and suffering is mind boggling. Whether in Nepal or South Africa or elsewhere, all of us have the capacity to either destroy or rehumanise one another. I am ashamed of what happened in my name and will for the rest of my life try to understand the pain of those who suffered.

Two months ago, 26 years after this tragic episode in our history, I witnessed a black pastor broke down in tears as he told stories of how his team mates in a soccer team slit one another’s throats when the ANC-Inkatha Freedom Party conflict broke out in KwaZulu Natal in the early 90s. “Can you imagine”, he said, “friends killing one another. What for? For whom?”

The pain of the past is still with us. The problem with the past, say the Irish, is that it isn’t in the past. The scaffolding has fallen, but the building still stands. The past is here, now, and before us. We live between narratives of pain and hope for a better future. But this hope is often killed by humiliation and fear.

We create our past every day because we re-tell these stories to our children and grandchildren again and again. We memorialise fallen heroes and respect those who fought on our behalf.

So here are the questions we are facing: How do you mediate the pain of the past? What do you do with wounds, with humiliation, with memories, with destroyed aspirations, with economic futures being destroyed and people condemned to an existence of daily struggles in poverty? How do you make sense of the senseless deaths of children and breadwinners? How do you work for justice and healing? By jailing all the culprits? Will a truth and reconciliation process bring reconciliation if it only focuses on transitional justice? Is melmilab the answer? Sambaad?

Nepal puts a high prize on mediation. You have a mediation council and legislation to refer disputes to mediation. Working with Nepali mediators in TAF programmes has left me in no doubt that an 82% success rate in mediating 27000+ disputes with the assistance of over 7000 volunteer mediators is a fantastic achievement.

In many communities and VDCs mediation is now the preferred choice of response to conflict. That is really something to celebrate.

When I asked these mediators what inspired them to become involved in mediation, many of them—especially lawyers—said that what attracted them to mediation was the fact that they believed that while courts pronounced on who is right and wrong, the justice system could not heal the relationships or repair the damage of the injustices. Witnessing first hand how disputants got relief by reaching their own agreements was proof that mediation really work.

In theory everybody in Nepal has access to justice, but in practice that access is unequal.

This is where sambaad (dialogue) comes in. What do we mean by sambaad?  Sambaad, to my knowledge, is not a word that was frequently used in Nepal. People spoke of barta (negotiations) or bad bibaad (debate). Sambaad is “a voluntary and safe process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. This change happens because people develop joint understanding, shift their relationships and commit to taking joint action.”

The purpose in sambaad is not so much to reach an agreement. The purpose is to enquire, to understand better. We rehumanise one another and restore one another’s dignity by listening to one another. We are not so much interested in establishing who is right or wrong, but in what we need others to understand about our journeys and views.

Sambaad is part of the mediation process, but goes before and beyond the formal structure of mediation. If sambaad could become the default response to conflict, mediation may in many cases not even be necessary. Sambaad is not always the only answer, but it is the way to bring healing, peace and justice to wounded people and societies.

Dialogue spaces are completely different from mediation and negotiation spaces. In dialogue the emphasis is on understanding one another—seeing the world through the eyes of the other.
If you know that I understand what you want me to understand, our relationship may shift from a competitive one to a collaborative one. We can shift from “you” and “I” to “we”. It is not so much about “it” (the issue), but about “us” and how “we live together as citizens/villagers/families” in our common space with a common purpose.

In Africa we have the principle of Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other persons”. Put differently, “I am because you are.” We are interconnected. If you suffer, I suffer; your pain is my pain. If your dreams are realised I am celebrating with you. If you are hungry I cannot sleep well. If you are thirsty I need to share my water with you.

If our approaches to building peace through dialogue, mediation, facilitation, and negotiation fail to rehumanise and re-member our dismembered and fragmented societies; or fail to inspire and strengthen people to transform their own conflicts in future, those spaces were wasted. (I am using the word space not so much in the sense of a physical space, but a process and a structure where people feel safe enough to engage with integrity, honesty and a willingness to listen.)

John Paul Lederach, a long time friend of Nepal, talks about “mediative spaces”. Mediative spaces don’t fall from the air. They have to be carefully designed, nurtured and promoted. There is a saying that those who work for peace must be as well prepared as those who fight a war. Everybody in Nepal, from government, civil society and economic actors have an opportunity to design an imaginative infrastructure for lasting and genuine peace and justice.

At a time when Nepal is facing potentially devastating conflicts as it implements federalism and the new constitution, my plea to this conference is to do the unimaginable. Nelson Mandela said: "Time and time again conflicts are resolved through ways that were unimaginable at the start."

Dream about a Nepal that has sambaad in its DNA. Dream about a society that is inclusive and re-membered. Dream about institutions that focus on healing, restoration and rehumanisation at national, state, regional and community levels. Dream about peace with justice instead of peace at the cost of justice. Dream about a future where mediation and court cases are only needed in exceptional circumstances because people who are in the habit of sambaad prevent the escalation of destructive conflict. Dream about young people who use the energy of conflict to build a bright future. Dream about your grandchildren who, in 20 years from now, honour you for your contribution to leave behind a prosperous, equal, just and peaceful society.

If you can dream it, you can design it. If you can design it, you can build it. All it takes is imagination, political will and commitment. It is possible.

Thank you.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Haiku for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs staff. Sandö, Sweden

Haiku *
Chris Spies  

May 2016

I wrote these Haiku poems for the final closing session for participants of the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA) DPA Dialogue and Mediation Course. Haiku is a form of poetry, first made popular in Japan, which has become appreciated around the world. The poem has seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.

United Nations —
Divided societies
Building peace for all


Political work:
Who ever said it’s easy?
There are no soft skills


Shall we use our energies
To listen deeply?


Is our message clear
—Prevention better than cure?—
Or just a slogan?


Building blocks for peace
Can we measure our efforts
For effectiveness?


You are a leader
Use your imagination
To inspire all


Don’t get in the way
Of those who build their own peace
Keep your ego out


It’s not about us
It’s all about the people
That is our purpose


Follow your calling
To rehumanise the world
And foster healing